Industrial fires pose hazards to the facility, personnel and surrounding communities. The release of a flammable material can produce a fireball, pool fire, flash fire, flare or jet fire, and even an unconfined vapor cloud explosion.
The risks of explosion, chemical releases and rapidly expanding fires are great in industrial facilities. The 37,000 industrial fires in the U.S. every year cause an average of 18 deaths, 279 injuries and $1 billion in direct property damage.
But technology is making its mark on industrial fire operations and will continue to do so in 2022 as innovative gismos and gadgets enter the fray to help fire brigades prevent and douse fires. Here are technology breakthroughs set to make a permanent impact in industrial firefighting in 2022.
Advances in Drone Technology
Using drones for industrial fires, where firefighters may encounter wickedly hot blazes, explosion risks, toxic fumes and hazardous chemicals, is increasing.
“A drone can create a more holistic view of these fire scenes from multiple vantage points,” says Barry Alexander, founder and CEO of Aquiline Drones. “Drones give you a complete picture of the scene while keeping humans out of harm’s way.”
Drones deliver aerial imagery that enhances situational awareness. New low-cost, thermal imagery solutions on drones improve visibility in difficult conditions. The technology helps drones “see” through smoke to deliver key information to firefighters. Incident commanders can receive real-time video, overlaid area topography and maps to gain insight that enhances the firefighting mission. When drones fly overhead, the technology can pinpoint hidden fire in roofs and walls to better protect firefighters. Should humans remain in the building, this technology also can pin down their whereabouts.
Indoor drones such as those from Flyability SA can inspect buildings while firefighters remain a safe distance away. “Drones can go into dangerous events when you are unsure of the conditions inside. They can visually survey the scene to help you determine if it’s safe for someone to enter,” says Zack Dukowitz, content marketing manager of Flyability SA. “Post-event, you can use drones to gather visual data for a potential arson investigation.”
Drones operated indoor need collision tolerance so it can fly in confined spaces, collide with a wall, and keep flying without damaging the drone. They also need the ability to operate when there’s no signal and in extreme temperatures, Dukowitz notes.
Industrial fire brigades also can use drones for routine inspections. Tank inspections are traditionally a laborious, expensive process that involves prolonged downtime and safety concerns for those doing the inspections. Using drones revolutionizes this task, providing needed information about tank conditions, while enhancing safety and reducing downtime.
Taking on Thermal Imagers
Havershaw, New York, Fire Captain Jose Mulero says, “just as every firefighter has a flashlight and a radio, every firefighter will soon have a thermal imaging camera.”
Mulero hopes to equip every member of his team with the Reveal FirePRO X. This is a stark departure from one thermal imager carried by the officer in charge.
Personal thermal imagers will change how brigades fight industrial fires. Their uses include:
- Primary Searches: To scan for people and pets and locate the source of the fire.
- Self-Rescue: An additional lifeline to help firefighters find their way out of low visibility. They can locate windows, cooler regions, and hose lines for self-rescue.
- Downed Firefighter Situations: Firefighters can respond to mayday calls and locate fellow members in smoke-filled environments.
- Alarms, Smells, and Smoke: Teams can identify the source of hidden problems. The unit can help identify hotspots, faulty wiring, shorts, and more.
- Hazmat: Hazmat teams can investigate and identify hazardous material levels in tanks and pressure vessels and investigate situations from a safe distance.
- Overhaul: Using thermal imagers increases the number of eyes searching for hot spots so teams can leave the scene confident that the fire is out.
- Non-Fire Search and Rescue: Help find missing people in the dark.
- Training: Teach firefighters about fire dynamics.
- Situational Awareness: The tool helps firefighters keep visual contact with other members in low visibility situations to improve situational awareness and efficiency.
Reveal FirePRO X offers a 320x240 thermal imaging sensor that provides a wide 32-degree field of view that can detect objects from 12 inches to 1,800 feet away. The thermal imager’s IP67 rating and sealed housing protects it from water damage while damage-resistant Gorilla Glass keeps the screen free of cracks and scratches. The device operates in temperatures that range from -4 degrees Fahrenheit (F) to 1,022 degrees F. The Reveal FirePRO X operates for up to 3.5 hours of continuous use with a long-lasting rechargeable battery. And when firefighters need it, they can access a powerful 300-lumen LED with the touch of a button.
With a price point of under $1,000, departments can equip all firefighters with the device.
The internet of things (IOT) has ushered in useful features for business and personal use. Now the IoT promises to wirelessly connect firefighting tools to enhance safety and staff.
MSA relied on the IoT to engineer an all-in-one safety solution ecosystem of products to help firefighters view a situation in real-time while staying connected to each other. The connected firefighter platform comprises:
- LUNAR – A handheld search-and-rescue device using thermal imaging technology to identify edges, people, doors, windows and other venting sources. It also includes a motion detector that sounds an alarm and broadcasts a distress signal to nearby personnel if a firefighter becomes incapacitated.
- FireGrid – An integrated system that connects all LUNAR devices as soon as they turn on to provide real-time accountability of firefighters’ status and location, whether or not they wear breathing apparatus. It feeds the collected data to on-scene commanders and remote personnel, such as a dispatch center or fire station.
- MSA Hub – A device creating a wireless gateway using its own hotspot by tapping into cellular technology. If cell signals are unavailable or severed, it creates its own cloud-based hotspot to communicate with all devices within range.
Previously, data about individual firefighters only became available when they connected to a SCBA that relayed their estimated air pressure, battery life and time remaining. In contrast, LUNAR uses advanced technology to relay that information and other data to assist a firefighter carrying the handheld device.
Equipped with firefighting assisting search technology (FAST), LUNAR constantly broadcasts real-time information about a firefighter’s location and status. For example, if a firefighter has not moved in 30 seconds, LUNAR’s motion detection sensor recognizes a problem, broadcasts a distress signal and emits an audible alarm.
Even when not connected to SCBA, LUNAR detects a downed firefighter and broadcasts distance and directional information to other personnel who can use the device’s thermal imaging feature to rescue that person in restricted visibility.
Innovations in PPE
Ninety-six firefighters died in the line of duty in 2020. Though the reasons for death vary, the No. 1 cause remains consistent year over year. Overexertion, stress, and medical issues contribute to most firefighter deaths.
Other factors leading to death include the hazards of the job: heat and smoke inhalation, explosions, falling objects, structural collapse, falls and electrocution.
Smart personal protective equipment (PPE) aims to reduce firefighter deaths by sending critical lifesaving information to incident commanders.
Companies pattern smart PPE after smartphones, smart watches and FitBit-style devices, which already deliver powerful insights about health and performance. These devices typically include a myriad of Internet of Things (IoT) sensor technology, such as gyroscopes, GPS, accelerometers, barometric pressure readers, and heart rate monitors. Each provides valuable insights about the user.
- Gyroscope data can share when the wearer falls or hits the floor, prompting an inquiry into their condition.
- GPS accurately shows the user’s location. If used in smart PPE, commanders could see where firefighters are to direct backup or emergency assistance.
- Accelerometers provide clues about the wearer’s speed. Should it change rapidly, commanders can investigate why.
- Barometers provide information about the wearer’s altitude. If used in PPE, commanders can tell whether a firefighter is on the first or third floor. They will know where to direct backup or whom to call out.
- Heart rate sensors indicate fatigue, overheating and overexertion.
The challenge has been making sensor technology available to wearers in a heated environment filled with smoke and toxic fumes. The average FitBit, smartphone or smart watch cannot withstand the conditions firefighters face on the job.
IoT advances surmount these challenges. It is now possible to create rugged sensors for smart PPE that share pertinent data with incident commanders over the cloud.
“Technology advancements and cloud hosting capabilities make it possible to deliver smart PPE to firefighters. Now there are wearable gas sensors that clip to PPE and monitor gas levels. And firefighters wear our product underneath their PPE to measure how their PPE affects them,” says Zack Braun, cofounder and CEO of FireHUD.
He predicts, “Someday smart PPE will refer to sensors embedded in the PPE itself.”
Manufacturers define smart PPE or smart wearable technology as PPE that uses IoT sensors to collect information and connects to the Internet and other devices, like smartphones, tablets, or PCs, to deliver real-time safety information.
A long-range radio gateway connects smart PPE with other devices to offer real-time alerts. FireHUD’s smart BioTrac PPE connects to a gateway on fire trucks. Commanders can check any Internet enabled device for real-time vital signs on members. Smart PPE improves situational awareness as it collects data, sends notifications, and adjusts to internal and external conditions. It benefits frontline personnel by tracking their location and health condition and dispatching the data to authorized officials.
Wearable smart technology provides detailed information on the wearer’s core body temperature, heart rate, exertion and more. When technology keeps track of each member’s biometrics, members can worry less about their health and focus on the mission at hand.
Smart PPE is making its way into communications devices, such as helmets and face masks, to aid communication in low visibility and loud environments. It’s also connecting to cooling and heating elements that lower body temperatures in hot environments. And environmental sensors in clothing now monitor gas, chemicals, heat, sound impacts and more, and notify lead personnel when signs of trouble appear.
FireHUD’s BioTrac platform comprises an armband wearable device that observes the wearer’s physiological responses within a fire and a transmitter that sends data over a long-range and secure radio network to a gateway in the vehicle that beams data to the cloud for commanders to access in real-time.
“Our wearable device tracks heart rate, core body temperature, and overexertion,” says Braun. “These things are important to measure. PPE does an excellent job of protecting firefighters from a fire or the environment, but it also creates a microclimate where their body heat cannot dissipate fast enough, and they can overheat or overexert themselves.”
Fire departments around the world are seeking quieter, cleaner and greener vehicles. Now electric fire trucks are available to meet these needs.
Pierce, a subsidiary of Oshkosh Corporation based in Appleton, Wisconsin, developed the Volterra fire truck in response to worldwide efforts to establish green initiatives that reduce carbon emissions, minimize fuel consumption and produce less noise.
“We designed our electric vehicles around Oshkosh proprietary and patented technology,” says Jim Johnson, Oshkosh Corporation executive vice president and president of fire and emergency. “They will provide the environmental benefits fire departments request, without having to compromise on operational performance, functionality, safety attributes, customization, and the traditional configurations or styling customers expect from our fire apparatus.”
The City of Madison Fire Department in Wisconsin deployed North America’s first electric firefighting vehicle in May. The 14-station department serves 260,000 people spread over 100 square miles. The department assigned the new truck to Station 8, the city’s busiest fire station, which responds to 15 to 20 calls every day.
Built on a 42,000-pound Pierce Enforcer custom chassis, the Volterra offers seating for six people and includes a 500-gallon water tank with a single-stage pump capable of dispensing 1,500 gallons per minute. The truck can accommodate ladders in 150 cubic feet of storage space as well as 1,000 feet of 5-inch hose plus 850 feet of 2.5-inch hose.
A 155-kilowatt-hour battery pack powers the truck, which uses an Oshkosh-patented parallel-electric drivetrain featuring an electro-mechanical, infinitely variable transmission. The design allows zero-emissions operation when powered by the integrated onboard batteries. The truck also couples to an internal combustion engine to provide uninterrupted power to the pumping system or drive system, a press release explains.
Pierce set up the Volterra to run on a 24-hour cycle. Departments can fully recharge its batteries from 0% to 100% in as little as 90 minutes, Fire Chief Steven Davis explains. Based on the department’s call volume, the truck can travel 40 miles on a single charge. During its first day of use, firefighters took the truck to 12 calls and the batteries never dropped below 74%.
Depending upon frequency and length of equipment use, Volterra’s batteries have an expected life cycle of approximately 14 years. “We are supplying Pierce with a lot of data about the battery,” Davis says. “As battery technology improves, we expect they will become even lighter weight and last longer.”
“Electric vehicles are the future of fire services,” Davis adds. “Many communities of Madison’s size have goals to establish green fleets within the next decade. The challenge will be to get city councils to fund the equipment.
Turnout Gear Advances
Turnout gear presents manufacturers with an interesting conundrum. The protective clothing’s main job is to shield firefighters from the very fire they’re fighting. But this gear also must protect in a way that “prevents the No. 1 killer of firefighters, which is heat stress, while safeguarding them from the No. 1 disease, which is cancer,” says Deana Stankowski, the senior offering manager for first responder gear at Honeywell.
It’s a scenario without easy answers. Most turnout gear worn by firefighters contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—a toxic class of chemicals used to meet water-resistant uniform standards. But studies link PFAS chemicals to a variety of health problems, including cancer, even at low doses.
The latest turnout gear innovations are changing the tide. PFAS-free materials, such as fibers from DuPont, do not use short- or long-chain PFAS in the aramid spinning process. Honeywell’s Morning Pride division now offers PFAS-free turnout gear. And Fire-Dex, a family-owned global PPE manufacturer, has announced TECGEN71+ and TECGEN51+ PPE fabrics with a PFAS-free water-repellent finish.
PFAS-free fabric comes with minor tradeoffs, Stankowski admits. The fabric loses some water and oil repellency, meaning it absorbs slightly more of both than its PFAS-containing counterparts. But PFAS-free fabrics still meet NFPA 1971 standards.
“PFAS-free gear offers the same thermal protection and moves the same way,” Stankowski says. “The color fastness and wear remain the same.”
Fire-Dex designs its TECGEN71+ NFPA 1971 outer shell to lessen heat stress by reducing weight and increasing flexibility. Turnouts crafted with TECGEN71+ are the light, thin, and breathable. Honeywell strives for similar characteristics in its turnout gear.
“Cancer is the No. 1 disease that kills firefighters, but heat stress is the No. 1 killer,” Stankowski says. “Anything we can do to reduce heat stress at a fire event and help firefighters cool down faster as they exit the fire is incredibly important. We push our suppliers to see how lightweight they can get while keeping durability and protection high.”
The six technologies listed above are changing the way we fight fires today as researchers and developers innovate and increase their sophistication for tomorrow.